Council leader denies ‘bias’ claim over Whitewebbs

Councillors reject calls to review the decision to award golf course lease to Tottenham Hotspur, reports Simon Allin, Local Democracy Reporter

Residents protest against a decision to award the Whitewebbs Park Golf Course lease to Spurs (credit Luke Lane)
Residents staged a protest outside Enfield Civic Centre on Saturday against a decision to award the Whitewebbs Park Golf Course lease to Spurs (credit Luke Lane)

The leader of Enfield Council has rejected claims of a conflict of interest over her decision to lease a former golf course to Tottenham Hotspur.

Nesil Caliskan denied suggestions that “unconscious bias” may have affected the move to hand over Whitewebbs Park Golf Course to Spurs after she accepted lunch and match tickets from the Premier League club.

Spurs plan to turn the northern part of the now-closed municipal course into a football academy for its women’s and girls’ teams. The council revealed last month it would award the club a 25-year lease if its proposals win planning permission.

The decision was discussed during a meeting of the overview and scrutiny committee on Thursday, where the suggestions of a conflict of interest were raised. They were prompted by declarations on the council website that the leader accepted a lunch meeting at Tottenham’s training ground in Bulls Cross on 13th February 2020 and match tickets six days later – shortly before the deadline for bidders for the lease to make their submissions on 2nd March.

Andrew Thorp, a Conservative councillor for Chase ward within which Whitewebbs Park is situated, told the meeting it could not be ruled out that by receiving the tickets “there may have been unconscious bias in that decision-making process”.

Daniel Anderson, from the Community First opposition group, also suggested unconscious bias may have played a role in the decision.

But the leader strongly rejected the claims. Pointing out that she meets stakeholders “for a variety of reasons”, Cllr Caliskan invited members who were concerned about her conduct to put in a complaint.

Responding to Cllr Anderson, the leader said the claim was an attack on her integrity and that she had “done nothing legally wrong”. 

Cllr Caliskan added: “When I make a decision for this local authority, I make it in the interest of the people that live here. I make it in the interest of the whole borough. I make it in the interest of trying to reduce inequality in this borough, and so that we have plans for the future so that our finances are robust.”

Opposition Conservatives had ‘called in’ the decision to award the lease to Spurs for examination by the scrutiny committee. Although councillors raised a series of concerns during the meeting, Labour committee members rejected calls for a re-think of the decision.

Cllr Thorp said groups who use Whitewebbs Park had been clear “time and time again” that there had been a “total lack of meaningful stakeholder engagement” over the lease, and that they had resorted to “protests and petitions to make their voice heard”.

The leader said she believed there was adequate consultation, and this was detailed “in a number of reports and timetables”.

Cllr Thorp also raised financial concerns, claiming that the income the council would receive – a £500,000 premium followed by an annual £75,000 from year six to 25 – amounted to “£1.36 per acre, per day” for the land, which he said was being “totally undervalued”.

In response, Mark Bradbury, the council’s director of property and economy, said the rent the council would receive from Spurs would be “comparable” to the amount it gets from other golf courses it leases out and higher than the rate it receives for agricultural land. He also pointed out that rental income was only one of several criteria used to judge the bids.

The leader and council officers also sought to reassure committee members that the council would take enforcement action if there were any breaches of planning conditions or the terms of the lease.

In response to questions from Labour’s Chinelo Anyanwu, who asked for reassurances that wildlife and parkland would be protected, Mark said money received from Spurs would be invested in improving public footpaths and “rewilding” some of the land.

When Cllr Anyanwu asked how the plan would benefit the rest of the borough, including Edmonton, Cllr Caliskan said the council would invest £100,000 in grassroots sports activities for young people across Enfield.

Conservative committee member James Hockney asked if the leader would “generally reflect on how the local authority can best engage with user groups, rather than having a lot of upset and angry people quite rightly criticising the council in terms of the way that it engages”.

Cllr Caliskan replied that the council reflects on every decision to “look at how we can improve the process” after the public provides feedback.

At the end of the debate Tory committee members James Hockney and Lee David-Sanders, plus Community First’s Daniel Anderson, voted to send the decision back to cabinet for further consideration. Labour’s Margaret Greer, Sinan Boztas, Birsen Demirel and Chinelo Anyanwu voted to confirm the original decision.